American attorneys general have been both statesmen and rogues. Nominated over either howls of protest or with purrs of praise from editorial writers, they have been both loathed and loved. But in whatever manner these men chose to execute their duties as counsel for the American people and lawyer for the president, their personal character and morality have had tremendous effects on the body politic.
In the case of Edwin Meese III, whose nomination as President Reagan's attorney general is now before a Senate committee, character and ethics are still important factors for consideration. For, make no mistake, those personal qualities, perhaps even as much as Meese's mastery or nonmastery of the law, will leave their imprint on both the judicial system and on our times.
Another Republican president who enjoyed a friendship with his attorney general similar to that of Reagan and Meese was Warren G. Harding. He named to the post Harry M. Daugherty, who had guided him to the 1920 presidential nomination and election. Daugherty, who once observed that "law and politics, you know, go hand in hand," was known for his roguish cronies, favor selling and poker parties attended by the president.
When coal miners and railroad workers went on strike in the early 1920s, Daugherty told Harding that either the administration would have to break the strikes "or we must surrender to the gentlemen in Moscow who are directing it."
Obtaining an injunction from a friendly federal judge, he broke the strike. But he violated the constitutional rights of thousands of workers in the process.
Perhaps a clearer example of how the success of an attorney general depends on the character of the man occurred 40 years later when John F. Kennedy named his campaign manager to head the Department of Justice.
Though relatively young and inexperienced, Robert F. Kennedy emerged as a champion of the disadvantaged, displaying genuine concern for people who lacked power and money to support their quest for justice. His confrontations with his brother when he went beyond the cutting edge of civil rights, said a lot about his character.
Similarly, the strength of his moral fiber was evident when he confronted J. Edgar Hoover and insisted that the Justice Department, the FBI in particular, limit its concern about uncovering communists and focus on labor union corruption.
In contrast, the presidency of Richard M. Nixon ushered in a new low. John Mitchell, who had been Nixon's law partner and campaign manager, exhibited his character flaws as attorney general almost immediately. Eventually, he went to prison for misinterpreting his duty. By contrast, Elliot Richardson chose to resign rather than compromise his principles, and yet another attorney general of that era, Edward Levi, rescued justice from its deep depression after the Watergate era.
So much more is at stake than whether Meese was criminally culpable in the allegations against him.
His approach to the law is evident. As presidential counselor, he tried to wipe out years of civil rights gains by restoring tax exemptions to private schools that practice racial segregation. He branded the American Civil Liberties Union a "criminals' lobby."
Does Meese have Bobby Kennedy's compassion or Levi's and Richardson's integrity? Certainly not. While I cannot fault the president for wanting someone he trusts to be attorney general, I cannot help but feel that he had a chance to name a man who could bring an untarnished record to the office, but chose a buddy whose ethics already have been questioned.